Setting out to open the first truly innovative NSW high school in over a decade is a daunting challenge. Rather than simply picking up an existing pedagogical model, it means applying critical and creative thinking to build a model that responds to the current social context. By necessity this will be a model that evolves – as we learn from our experience, and as our context changes. For students, parents, and educators this requires both a leap of faith and a commitment to the ongoing pursuit of innovation and excellence.
While the model will evolve, there are a number of key areas where we feel there is a need to diverge dramatically from typical Australian high schools. The list below outlines twelve of these areas, and some of the thinking and evidence that has led to our proposed approach.
- The school will be modest in size. Our ambition is to have no more than one hundred and twenty students – roughly twenty in each year. In part this is driven by a desire to explore a replicable approach for other groups looking at starting new schools in high density urban areas – often there simply isn’t the space to create large-footprint schools that seek to drive efficiency through scale. The other reason for modest size is the culture of the school. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that people are only capable of maintaining strong, stable relationships with about one hundred and fifty people. With a school community smaller than ‘Dunbar’s Number‘, the school can operate as a unified, close-knit community, with rich interpersonal connections.
- The school will build contemporary skills and personal capabilities. Rather than the traditional focus on disciplinary knowledge acquisition, we will have a strong focus on 21st century skills – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. The intention is to further support this by adopting the philosophy of the International Baccalaureate, which seeks to create learners who are inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective. It is crucial that we don’t simply hope these attributes develop, but that we put their development at the core of our pedagogy.
- The school will be interdisciplinary and project-based. Projects that span disciplines (and year groups) will be the norm rather than the exception. The highly discrete nature of subjects in the national curriculum and state syllabus material makes this difficult. This is why so few schools attempt serious interdisciplinary approaches. We need to overcome these limitations to create richer, more connected learning experiences that reflect the complex problems students will face in the real world, where problems don’t come neatly compartmentalised into subjects.
- The school’s teachers will be inspiring learning facilitators, rather than didactic subject matter experts. There has been a lot of discussion about teachers transitioning from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘a guide on the side’. While this shift to teachers as facilitators is important, in many schools it rarely goes beneath the surface. As the focus shifts from pure knowledge acquisition to skills and capabilities, teachers need to be comfortable teaching in more constructivist environments; straddling disciplines; empowering and supporting young people in charting their own course; and modelling the lifelong learning and curiosity that they look to instill in students.
- The school will have no timetable, and no bells. Rigid timetables breaking the day up into discrete forty minute periods are a relic of the industrial factory model, created purely for the organisational benefit of the school. In professional environments there is increasing recognition for the need to provide flexible working structures – different tasks are best done over different periods over time. While some timetabling is required to bring the school community together and to ensure compliance with syllabus requirements, giving students more freedom to manage their own learning not only improves immediate results, it builds long-lasting skills in time management.
- The school will make use of rich digital content resources. Traditionally the delivery of content has been a large part of a teacher’s role – standing in front of the class and imparting information. With limited technology, this mode of teaching was an efficient way of organising a large class and a single teacher. Increasingly, the prevalence of high-quality, freely available multimedia and interactive learning materials means that students have access to richer and more engaging content options, from source as diverse as the Khan Academy, TED conferences, the BBC, MIT OpenCourseWare, and YouTube. Using these resources encourages students to become more independent learners, and means that teachers have more time to focus on complementary learning experiences such as group discussions and student projects.
- The school will not be institutional. Two key factors have shaped the architecture of schools – driving efficiency through economies of scale; and taking a public infrastructure approaches to institutions. The result is impersonal, clinical buildings that are inherently oppressive, often reminiscent of other institutions like hospitals and prisons. The same was true of many residential buildings during high modernism, and of the ‘cube-farm’ workplaces many of us were familiar with last century. Both homes and businesses have undergone enormous change in the past few decades. Revolutions in architecture and experience design also need to inform how we design schools, enabling us to create spaces for living and learning that reflect us, connect us, and align with the humanistic ambitions of education.
- The school will not have a uniform or use honorifics. With their origins in maintaining class segregation in sixteenth century England, there is no compelling contemporary evidence that school uniforms provide either academic or behavioural benefits. They do however, contribute to a culture of conformity, policing and deference to authority – as does the archaic tradition of referring to teachers by surname or ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Through a more flexible dress code and informal modes of address, an egalitarian culture can be nurtured within the school that supports both individuality and independence.
- The school’s use of technology will reflect the real world. Schools and experts tend to gravitate to extreme positions on technology – seeking to reduce its impact in the classroom or becoming overly reliant on the latest technology fads. Our students are growing up actively engaged with technology, our school environment needs to recognise that – capitalising on their technical literacy and building the skills they will need for living and working in a complex and changing technological society. We need to recognise that this means changing the way we teach, taking advantage of the benefits and minimising the challenges.
- The school will encourage the interests of individual students. From an early age, young people show high levels of engagement around their passions. In most cases they have no chance to pursue their passions, as they don’t align with pre-determined syllabus content. By taking a more flexible, skills-based approach to the curriculum, there is greater opportunity to embed student interests in more personalised ‘individual learning plans’. The result is a level of engagement that drives greater learning outcomes.
- The school will be connected to the community. Too often, the fences that surround schools are also indicative of a disconnection from the world outside of the grounds. Challenging this insular approach, our school will connect more often and more meaningfully with parents, with the broader community, and with academia. The result is students feeling connected to the world, developing an authentic sense of global-mindedness, and increasingly seeing their learning and their actions in a meaningful context.
- The school day and school year will be flexible. A forty-week school year and a nine-to-three school day are the result of historical factors, and are out of step with much of our understanding about young learners and the lifestyles of modern families. Operating a school more in line with typical workplace hours is more convenient for many parents, and provides a greater level of flexibility for students. It removes the need for homework, aiming to provide the opportunity to complete all required school work within a longer, supported school day. Operating a school through some or all of the traditional school holidays again provides students with more options regarding how they manage their own learning.
None of these idea are new, and few of them are revolutionary. There are schools around the world – and even some in Australia – that are aligned with one or more of them. But in looking at high schools around NSW, we believe that a school which embodied all of these ideas at its core – and sought to learn and evolve – would be a truly radical and innovative departure from the norm. We believe that it would be a timely response to the significant challenges facing contemporary education. And we believe it would be an inspiring learning community for students, parents and educators to be part of.
We hope you agree, and we invite you to be part of our ambitious journey.